Today’s modern medicine is incredible for all that has been discovered about the body. However, even without modern science, our ancestors intuitively learned some pretty insightful things about the body. Using modern science to explain the mechanism behind such insights can be extremely fascinating.
One example of this is the use of bitter herbs. The use of bitters to aid digestion has a long history. We now understand that a reflex exists, termed the “bitter reflex,” that begins a cascade of actions in the body to prepare our digestive system for the food we are about to eat. The taste of bitter on the tongue stimulates the brain to release the digestive hormone, gastrin. This begins a chain of neural and endocrine actions including:
- Appetite stimulation
- Release of digestive enzymes from the pancreas, duodenum, and liver
- Stimulation of the smooth muscle of the stomach to increase the rate of gastric emptying and contraction of the esophageal sphincter to prevent the movement of acidic stomach contents back upwards into the esophagus
- Aiding the liver in detoxification and an increase in the flow of bile
- Regulation of secretion of pancreatic hormones that regulate blood sugar, insulin and glucagon
- Stimulating mechanisms to repair the gut wall
The best way to incorporate bitter into your diet and stimulate the bitter reflex is to eat a greens salad that contains dark leafy greens, such as: chicory, dandelion, arugula, radicchio or endive before your meal. Teas or tinctures that contain herbal bitters can also be used to stimulate the reflex. Common herbal bitters include:
The Ultimate Guide to Bitters
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The health benefits for bitters
How is simply eating something bitter-tasting better for your health?
Scientists label bitter as one of the seven basic tastes.
Our body contains tons of receptors (T2RsTrusted Source) for bitter compounds in not only our mouth and tongue, but our stomach, gut, liver, and pancreas.
This is mostly for protective reasons. Our bitter receptors are built as a “warning” to our body, as most dangerous and poisonous things are highly bitter tasting.
The stimulation of these bitter receptors promotes healthy digestion by increasing digestive secretions. This leads to better absorption of nutrients, natural detoxification of the liver, and — thanks to the gut-brain connection — bitters can even have a positive effect on stress.
But remember, bitters are not a primary treatment. Think of them as a health boost to help the body run more smoothly — from kick-starting the digestive tract to boosting the immune system. They shouldn’t replace any treatment a doctor has prescribed.
Digestion and gut benefits
When your digestion needs a little support, bitters can facilitate stomach acid and act as a digestive aid.
This can not only ease indigestion, but also heartburn, nausea, cramping, bloating, and gas.
Immune and inflammation benefits
Burdock is an inflammation fighter that has been shown Trusted Source to have positive effects in people with osteoarthritis.
Paired with common additions, like ginger and turmeric, bitters can become an immune-boosting powerhouse.
The anti-inflammatory compounds in these ingredients have powerful antioxidant effects to protect the body from autoimmune diseases.
Sugar and appetite control benefits
Curb sugar cravings quickly with the help of bitters, which help counter the brain receptors Trusted Source that drive us to consume sweets.
Bitters can promote overall healthy eating habits and control overeating Trusted Source. Consuming bitter foods stimulates the production of PYY and GLP-1 hormones, which help control and suppress the appetite Trusted Source.
Liver health benefits
Certain buttering agents help support the liver at fulfilling its main job: removing toxins from the body and regulating our metabolic processes.
Bitters give the liver a boost by aiding in the elimination of toxins and detoxification, coordinating the metabolism of sugar and fats, and helping release gallbladder-supporting hormones like cholecystitis (CCK).
Bitters can also have a positive effect on blood sugar levels Trusted Source, healthy skin, and stress.
The Top 6 Most Powerful Herbs for Improving Digestion and Healing the Gut
digestive herbs work in a number of interesting ways from healing the lining of the gut to increasing the secretion of digestive juices to repairing digestion related organs like the liver, gallbladder, pancreas and stomach. photo: shutter stock Share:
The digestive system is dedicated to breaking down food and allowing its nutrients to be absorbed into the bloodstream, from where they are then carried to every part of the body. Unless you regularly incorporate herbs for digestion into your diet, this system is subject to a variety of problems and it is important that it is functioning well for the health of the whole body.
Stomach pain due to ulcers and indigestion from over-eating, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, and diarrhea are just some of the problems that can plague this sensitive area, but there are also herbs for digestion that can help with each of these. The liver, which is part of digestion, gets special attention in this article and its function can be enhanced with digestive herbs.
The liver is an amazing chemical factory performing more than five hundred major tasks, using thousands of different enzymes. The liver plays a vital role as a filtering system for the blood.
There are a number of digestive herbs that can help improve the function of the digestive system, and each has a unique purpose in digestive health and detoxification support.
1. Artichoke (Cynara scolymus)
Legend has it that the mighty god Zeus was rejected by the object of his desire, the beautiful Cynara, so he turned her into a thistle and thus created the artichoke plant!
The artichoke has been used medicinally as a digestive herb since the time of the Roman Empire. Belonging to the daisy family, artichoke can grow up to six feet high. The medicinal qualities of this plant are well recognized, and the first mention of artichoke’s health benefits was documented by pupils of the Greek philosopher Aristotle.
Used as a liver tonic, artichoke’s restorative power improves liver health. As one of the strongest herbs for digestion, it stimulates bile flow, thus leading to better digestion and helping the body break down food and alcohol more effectively. This digestive herb also strengthens liver and kidney function.
Artichoke’s active properties have many benefits, but its main ingredient is cynarin. High concentrations of cynarin are found in the leaves, and they can be used to improve appetite and digestion. Their bitterness has a stimulating effect on the liver and also a cooling action. As one of the top herbs for digestion, artichoke appears to be helpful in alleviating symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, improving nausea, bloating, constipation, and pain from gas. Research has shown that, taken to help maintain a healthy digestive system, digestive herbs like artichoke may also help maintain cholesterol at normal levels. Artichoke extracts are available in tablets and tinctures from health stores.
2. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis)
The name of this flower is derived from the French “dent de lion” meaning lion’s tooth. This name was supposedly given to this plant by a 15th century surgeon, due to the dandelion’s jagged shaped leaves. Folk healers have long prescribed the root of this cleansing digestive herb for liver and digestive problems.
3. Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
In addition to being one of the best digestive herbs, this amazing warming spice also impacts the circulatory system. This root was introduced into Europe during the Roman Empire, and it has held an honored place as one of the herbs for digestion in traditional medicine for a very long time. Chinese herbalists have used ginger root for 2,000 years, and the ancient Greeks prized it as an aid to digestion, mixing powdered ginger into bread.
Growing wild in Asia, ginger’s unique properties and therapeutic benefits as one of the herbs for digestion are now being rediscovered and confirmed scientifically. Today it is used therapeutically to alleviate nausea and upset stomach, due to its anti-emetic properties, and it is also used to alleviate stomach cramps. Gingerols and zinger ones are the active anti-inflammatory constituents of this pungent spice. It is a natural remedy for heartburn, as well as nausea caused by motion sickness, so it is helpful for travelers. As a digestive tonic herb, ginger helps normalize the digestive process. Before eating anything, the wise sage Confucius would ginger up his food by sprinkling a little of this yang, digestive herb spice onto his meal. He knew that some ginger would promote appetite, prevent nausea, and help expel gases from the stomach and intestinal tract.
Ginger root can be bought in any supermarket or taken in capsule form for a more potent effect. The root of this digestive herb can be grated and made into a warming ginger tea that is helpful for soothing nausea.
4. Slippery Elm Bark (Ulmus fulva)
Native Americans used the powdered inner bark of the elm tree to make poultices to soothe damaged skin and to draw out poisons from boils and abscesses. European settlers used it, among other herbs for digestion, to calm the terrible digestive problems of typhoid sufferers. Today this digestive herb is a popular remedy for digestive discomfort, such as acid dyspepsia, irritable bowel syndrome, or for the type of problems associated with eating a food that disagrees with you.
Soothing, nutritive, and demulcent in action, slippery elm bark has calming properties. Its moisturizing action eases an upset digestion, protects the stomach and eases diarrhea and intestinal cramps. It neutralizes acidity, coating the mucous membrane lining of the gastrointestinal tract. A gentle form of non-digestible carbohydrate, this herb for digestion makes its way through the gut, flushing out toxic wastes as it transits through the digestive system.
Slippery elm also works as an expectorant by increasing bronchial secretions, loosening up thick and stubborn throat mucus, decreasing the stickiness of troublesome phlegm, and helping the body to remove it.
Slippery elm bark comes in powder form and it can be used to make a soothing tea for irritation of the digestive tract. The powder from this digestive herb can be sprinkled on muesli or oatmeal, helpful in healing the lining of the gut in leaky gut syndrome, which makes this one of the very best herbs for digestion.
5. Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)
Another one of the herbs for digestion, milk thistle, is a flowering plant of the daisy family, and it has been used for hundreds of years as a digestive herb and a liver strengthener and to treat various liver disorders due to its significant liver-protective actions.
Strange powers were attributed to the milk thistle in medieval times, possibly because it was found growing in graveyards and cloister gardens.
The liver has to work hard to detoxify the body, and this digestive herb’s active property, a flavonoid known as silymarin, has been shown to maintain the health of liver cells and to neutralize the effect of toxins. It has a digestive “bitter tonic” action, helping promote the flow of bile in liver disorders. A popular herbal remedy today, this herb for digestion is used to help maintain a healthy liver and for the relief of an upset stomach or indigestion.
6. Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
The Greek doctor, Dioscorides, is reputed to have regularly worn a sprig of peppermint to lift his spirits. Its antispasmodic actions were recognized by physicians of the ancient world, and peppermint was popular with our more modern ancestors who saw it as a healing herb for digestion and the relief of digestive colic, sluggish digestion, flatulence, and bloating. Used for centuries as a gastrointestinal aid, peppermint is a digestive herb that helps relax the muscles of the digestive tract and stimulates bile flow.
Today this herb for digestion is sold to relieve indigestion, soothe stomach-ache, and relieve colicky diarrhea. Studied extensively, peppermint oil has been accepted as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome, as the volatile oils help to ease bloating, cramps, and spasms.
Peppermint can be taken in hot infusions (dried herb in boiling water) or used to make a peppermint tea (using commercially made tea bags). It is usually available as enteric coated capsules for the relief of IBS, available in health stores.